Travis Huxman, who led the University of Arizona's efforts to acquire ownership of Biosphere 2 and transform it into a laboratory for scientific research, has been hired away by the University of California.
His new post, running an environmental institute in Irvine, will have fewer administrative duties, giving him time to revive his studies of desert annual plants.
That will occasionally bring him back to Tucson, where he conducts continuing research on Tumamoc Hill and may devise experiments for the novel laboratory of the Biosphere 2.
"I love Tucson," said Huxman, 42, who called the UA "one of the few places in the world that offer such an opportunity for young scientists."
Huxman, a professor of ecology and evolutionary biology, was tapped five years ago to head up the Biosphere when the UA began managing the site. He helped negotiate the terms for assuming ownership in 2011.
It was a facility with a "checkered reputation" and plenty of deferred maintenance, said Leslie Tolbert, UA senior vice president for research.
Huxman began emphasizing science at the site and has nearly completed the first major scientific instrument in the controlled environment, Tolbert said.
That instrument, the Landscape Evolution Observatory, or LEO, consists of three rectangular soil beds, each 3,750 square feet in size and holding more than 3 feet of soil.
Hundreds of sensors embedded in the soil will allow a variety of scientists to measure the movement of water, energy and carbon through the soil under carefully controlled regimes of precipitation.
"It's a comfortable time to move," Huxman said. "We're nearly done with the LEO construction. We've brought all the projects forward. We have more grant funding."
Tourism has also increased, he said, and visitors are getting a better deal. "The public program is not just a novelty; it's an educational experience."
Joaquin Ruiz, dean of the College of Science, said he will be the de facto director "for at least a year," splitting Huxman's duties with new science director Peter Trock and B2 Institute Director Pierre Meystre, while he tries to figure out how to replace someone who "appears to be Superman."
"Very few people could have done the job Travis did," Ruiz said. "He inherited that big piece of hardware, but he put the spirit into things."
At UC-Irvine, Huxman will be a professor in the department of ecology and evolutionary biology and director of the Center for Environmental Biology.
"It's a smaller administrative burden with a lot of potential for exciting science, similar to the Institute for Environment here but focused on life sciences," he said.
DID YOU KNOW?
Biosphere 2 is 3.14 acres in area and has 6,500 windows that enclose a volume of 7.2 million cubic feet. It is 91 feet at its highest point.
The Biosphere's human experiments ran from 1991 to 1994, and Columbia University managed the facility from 1996 to 2003. The UA assumed management in 2007 and ownership of the site in 2011.